New Notes on the Autism Scale

New Jersey Symphony musicians Susan Gellert (L) and Ann Kossakowski (R) perform at Eden Autism Services in Princeton, NJ
New Jersey Symphony musicians Susan Gellert (L) and Ann Kossakowski (R) perform at Eden Autism Services in Princeton, NJ (Photo: Fred Stucker/NJSO)
This article appeared in Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.

It wasn’t the kind of concert that receives glowing press or even a sellout crowd, but the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s June 27 performance was deemed an auspicious success by its organizers.

This was the Pittsburgh Symphony’s first sensory-friendly performance—a concert designed specifically for families affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which involves, among other things, a hypersensitivity to light and sound, as well as for those with sensory sensitivities and other disabilities. The single event—of mostly pops-style pieces including Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Rimsky- Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee—drew $75,000 in funding. Pre-concert materials designed to familiarize concertgoers with the experience in advance included a story about attending performances at Heinz Hall, a musical playlist on Spotify, and introductory videos. Some $5,000 worth of free tickets were distributed through a variety of support organizations for families in need.

While attendance was a relatively modest 850 patrons, symphony officials noted that it was comparable to other arts organizations’ sensory-friendly events, and bad weather may have kept some concert-goers away. An orchestra spokesman said feedback from board, staff members, musicians, and some 50 volunteers had been overwhelmingly positive, and a similar event is planned for next year.

The Pittsburgh Symphony is one of a growing number of American orchestras that have responded to calls from autism advocates to provide sensory-friendly concerts. Many orchestras see these as a way to connect with overlooked segments of their communities and become more inclusive. The concerts also mirror a belief that people with disabilities can be better served overall: while disabled adults comprise nearly 12 percent of the U.S. adult population, they represent just under 7 percent of all adults attending perform- ing arts events, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Parents of children on the autism spectrum have welcomed these new opportunities because they otherwise shy away from public outings for fear that their child’s idiosyncratic behaviors—including sounds and movements—will be disruptive. A 2014 review of ten academic studies showed that music therapy may help children with autism-spectrum disorder to improve their skills in social interaction and communication. Further, as the nonprofit organization Music for Autism notes, these concerts can “fill a major psychosocial void, enabling children to enjoy enriching activities that are inclusive and to experience the joy and power of music as a family.”

Shaping Specialized Concerts

The Pittsburgh Symphony's sensory-friendly concert included a customized instrument petting zoo that was shaped to the abilities of the audience members.
The Pittsburgh Symphony’s sensory-friendly concert included a customized instrument petting zoo that was shaped to the abilities of the audience members. (Photo: Wade Massie)

To make a performance autism-friendly, several aspects of the concert experience are modified. House lights are typically kept on at 30 to 50 percent of their full power, and music is modified to temper loud sounds. Concert halls often are set up with a quiet area adjacent to the lobby for audience members who are over- stimulated and need a break. Some also set aside open space at the front of the house, where patrons are encouraged to move about freely as needed. Still, guidelines are a work in progress, and some arts groups have grappled with how to serve a wide spectrum of people with autism.

“Disability-friendly programming goes beyond wheelchair entrances,” says Robert Accordino, a physician who in 2007 founded the U.S. branch of the nonprofit organization Music for Autism. “Catering to these families is in some ways the most challenging. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. This challenges us to think differently.” Music for Autism organizes about 35 concerts annually in New York, Maryland, California, and Texas, using professional musicians. The organization’s mission is to enhance quality of life and raise public awareness through autism-friendly, interactive concerts developed for individuals with autism and their families. It is one of several nonprofits with which arts groups have partnered to develop targeted programming; other organizations include Autism Friendly Spaces and The Musical Autist.

“There isn’t a blueprint or a set of guidelines that we’ve figured out are best practices,” says Jessica Swanson, manager of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ disability programs. In developing programs with the National Symphony Orchestra and other constituents, the Kennedy Center relies heavily on feedback from its patrons and institutional partners (the Kennedy Center also works with Music for Autism). “We’ve been able to identify what families are telling us are the most important things,” says Swanson, “but not to the degree where we know it can’t be any louder than X or any brighter than Y.”

Beyond determining how to develop sensory-friendly concerts lies a more fundamental question of why. Kennedy Center officials regard these concerts as critical to its extensive menu of disability programs, particularly as the national autism rate climbed in 2014 to one in 68 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This reflects a 30 percent rise in just two years, though it is unclear exactly how much the increase is due to a broader definition of ASD and better efforts in diagnosis.

Not surprisingly, orchestras are more likely to embrace sensory-friendly concerts when a musician or staff member has a personal commitment to the cause. Holly Hamilton, a violinist in the National Symphony Orchestra who also works with Music for Autism, initiated the Kennedy Center’s efforts after taking her son, Clark Patterson, who has an intellectual disability as well as visual and hearing impairments, to her own performances at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia.

Hamilton recalls how the outdoor amphitheater at Wolf Trap allowed Patterson to sit in the back and applaud or playfully conduct along without causing a disturbance. This convinced her that such conditions could be replicated in more traditional concert venues. She also believes that music can have positive behavioral effects. “What surprised me is how open the kids are to the music,” she says of the concerts. “Some of them are nonverbal but their eyes light up. You can always get a good reaction from them.”

The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually, one of which features the NSO. Hamilton also takes chamber groups from the National Symphony Orchestra to special-education schools including the Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland. Swanson, of the Kennedy Center, sums up the concerts as “no-shushing shows and no-judgment zones.”

Held “Rapt” by Orchestras

Perhaps the most extensive autism-friendly orchestra series takes place at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which also serves a state with the highest reported rates of autism, at one in 45 children. The New Jersey Symphony launched a series of chamber music concerts in 2012 that now involves seventeen performances at ten partner schools and community centers. Last season, it reached 1,600 people across two counties, according to Marshell Jones Kumahor, the New Jersey Symphony’s vice president of education and community engagement. This reflects the orchestra’s mission to serve the entire state, she says, and to develop stronger ties with other arts and community groups.

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s program started with a request from a longtime subscriber who said that her autistic son was held “rapt” by the sound of an orchestra. After some exploration of the topic, the orchestra formed an eleven-member advisory group to study the issue, and it raised seed money through a $15,000 Getty Education and Community Investment Grant from the League of American Orchestras (funding is now provided by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and Johnson & Johnson).

Jones Kumahor says the orchestra regularly surveys its audiences through its partner organizations, which include schools and learning centers in Newark, Irvington, and Montclair, New Jersey. Unlike some arts groups, which have focused on the most “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum, Jones Kumahor notes that the NJSO has sought “to serve as wide a range as possible on the spectrum,” which makes for a greater challenge as the lower-functioning listeners tend to have little or no language, greater mental challenges, and little awareness of people or social expectations. So far, 26 out of 53 members of the orchestra have given chamber music concerts at schools and learning centers as part of the program.

Orchestras often consult with occupational therapists to learn how to structure concert formats, yet repertoire for sensory-friendly concerts often differs little from traditional children’s events. “We’ve found a little bit of everything to work the best, because it gives [listeners] something to hold onto,” said Ryan Gardner, a trumpet player and coordinator for Music for Autism. “Stories have gone really, really well. Keeping the communication brief is crucial. But it’s also essential that we have that communication because without it, it doesn’t really give them anything to think about.”

Taken as a whole, there’s a considerable variety of approaches in autism-friendly programming, even as certain parameters remain constant. During a tour to China in 2013, a group of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra performed for some 20 children with autism at a youth center in Shanghai. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on a “version of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ on trumpets and a surprisingly inventive ‘Amazing Grace’ by a young man whose left hand played piano while his right played a battery-powered organ.” During the orchestra’s 2014 China tour, Philadelphia musicians worked with students from the Sound of Angel Salon, an orchestra that trains children with autism to engage with their surroundings through music. The young musicians also performed for an audience that included Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who conducted the students in an impromptu performance.

Understanding Neurodiversity

The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually. (Photo: Scott Suchman)
The Kennedy Center launched its sensory-friendly performances in 2012 and now presents five such events annually. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

More recently, and on a different scale, Gannon University’s Erie Chamber Orchestra in Pennsylvania held a weeklong festival in April dedicated to music therapy, with a special focus on children with autism. The festival featured workshops, lectures, and an orchestral concert, “Burden of Genius,” led by Erie Chamber Music Director Matthew Kraemer and consisting of works by composers with neurological issues (including Beethoven, Schumann, and Hugo Wolf ). Events included therapy sessions and in-service presentations for therapists/educators at Barber National Institute, which is based in Erie and serves people with disabilities; a radio broadcast on Erie-based NPR affiliate WQLN; and a science-and-music presentation at Gannon University.

The festival was part of an ongoing partnership between ECO and the Barber National Institute established in 2013. Elsewhere, the Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony, New Mexico Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra are among the orchestras to explore autism-friendly programming.

Other corners of the classical music field have taken notice. The Boston Conservatory in 2014 announced a graduate-level music education program dedicated to providing training in music education and autism, believed to be the first of its kind, and leading to a master’s degree and a graduate certificate. And Lincoln Center’s education department has commissioned Up and Away, its first original work specifically for young audiences on the autism spectrum, featuring the Trusty Sidekick Theater Company. Loosely inspired by Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days, the musical theater piece had a run of previews in the spring and is slated to premiere at Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio Theater this fall.

These efforts come at a time when some campaigners see sensory-friendly events not simply as entertainment but as platforms for self-advocacy, a notion closely tied to neurodiversity—the theory that people with autism shouldn’t be forced to fit into society, but that society should change to include and accept them. C. J. Shiloh, the director of the Musical Autist organization, has gone so far as to describe sensory-friendly performances as a form of “social justice” for a badly marginalized population.

Some parents, however, are simply pleased to be out as a family among like-minded audience members. Attending an autism-friendly performance at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan in March, Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, said she had long shied away from taking her nine- year-old autistic son Norrin to a theater. “It’s always been difficult to navigate a regular show just because I don’t want to disturb other people,” she said. “It can be stressful, it can be overwhelming for him.” Nearby, a family relaxed in a “calming corner.” Quinones-Fontanez praised the theater’s presentation—everything from the ability to preview seats beforehand to family bathrooms, which allow parents and children to remain together.

During the New Victory show—by Flip FabriQue, a circus company from Quebec—children squirmed and giggled at the troupe’s slapstick humor, but they were also noticeably quiet during high-flying aerial routines. Gabriela Cassas, an usher, described the atmosphere as less hectic than a typical children’s show. “Being in an autism-friendly show, the environment is a lot safer,” she said. “Everyone is comfortable with each other. It’s a much more relaxed environment.”

Brooklyn Philharmonic, Innovative But Sounding a Troubled Tune

The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs "You're Causing Quite a Disturbance" in June 2013.
The Brooklyn Philharmonic performs “You’re Causing Quite a Disturbance” in June 2013 (courtesy of orchestra).

October 18, 2013

New York City Opera made international headlines in 2013 after it filed for bankruptcy. But another longstanding New York arts organization faced similar troubles, and with much less fanfare. Even some of its longtime partners were surprised, as I found in reporting this piece for WNYC and WQXR.

A Changing Landscape: Detroit Emerges from Bankruptcy to a Burgeoning Arts Scene

A warehouse near Eastern Market in Detroit
A warehouse near Eastern Market in Detroit (Brian Wise)

This article appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Listen magazine.

Soon after tuba player Dennis Nulty joined the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he did what nearly every musician in the orchestra had done before him: he hightailed it to the suburbs. The then-twenty-two-year-old from Buffalo, NY had received one too many warnings about robberies and shootings around the desolate blocks near Orchestra Hall. The trendy suburb of Ferndale beckoned.

“When I joined there were three members in the whole orchestra that lived in the city,” Nulty said as he sipped a cappuccino at a loft-like coffee shop near Orchestra Hall. “I remember being floored by that. Nobody lived downtown.” But now, “the majority of new members and even some of the old members have moved back to the city.”

Orchestra Hall is a beautiful early-twentieth-century theater on Woodward Avenue in Midtown, a mixed-use neighborhood that’s slowly riding Detroit’s nascent comeback from the depths of bankruptcy. Nearby are the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose collection was saved last year from the auction block by a group of foundations and donors (who also bailed out the city’s pension shortfalls in the process).

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Detroit’s fledgling rebirth has been driven in part by arts and culture, spurred on by a combination of philanthropic largess, stunningly cheap real estate and a try-anything ethos. These factors prompted the Galapagos Arts Space to leave Brooklyn last year for Detroit’s Corktown and neighboring Highland Park neighborhoods, where it is taking over nine vacant buildings totaling about six-hundred-thousand square feet (purchased for just five hundred thousand dollars).

Similar circumstances helped to spawn New Music Detroit, which became the city’s first professional contemporary music ensemble when it launched in 2007, and now presents an annual series including a twelve-hour concert marathon in September.

Smaller grassroots organizations are following a similar path.

Leading Detroit’s cultural recovery are a handful of philanthropies, notably the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which underwrites the Detroit Symphony’s much-discussed free weekly webcasts (unique among orchestras), and which is also providing three hundred fifteen thousand dollars towards a year-long crowdsourcing project called “Symphony in D.” The concept is fairly simple: DSO patrons are being asked to record and submit sounds that define life in Detroit — a Tigers game, a house being demolished — which will then be woven into an original piece by the composer and inventor Tod Machover.

Machover said he hopes to spur a conversation about the city’s future. “Detroit truly is a city in transition with enormous potential, enormous problems and some real serious things that people are thinking about,” said the composer from his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Patrons are encouraged to submit found sounds through an iPhone app, Symphony in D; while response has so far been modest judging by the size of the app’s sound library, Machover has been making monthly visits to do field recording himself. The piece is set to premiere on November 20 and 21, 2015.

Max M Fisher Music Center in Detroit (Wikipedia Commons/Andrew Jameson)
Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit (Wikipedia Commons/Andrew Jameson)

The DSO has weathered a lot in its 101-year history, including labor strife, deficits, mediocre concert venues, cuts in state aid, canceled tours and criticism over its racial makeup (Detroit today is about eighty-three percent black; of the seventy-six full-time contracted DSO musicians, two are black, ten Chinese, five Korean, one Latino; twenty-four are women). It has always bounced back, as it has again sought to do after a particularly rancorous six-month strike in 2010-11. “There’s a great buzz about living here and the regeneration and revitalization,” said Anne Parsons, the Detroit Symphony’s president and CEO. “It’s very hard to fight trends in your environment. And we’ve been fighting trends as the DSO for years and years. So we are elated to see the progress.”

As Parsons spoke, a cement mixer poured concrete outside her window for a light-rail line that is being built up Woodward Avenue. In 2013, a Whole Foods store opened across the street. There’s a hope that the young professionals who identify the area with organic groceries can be lured to a DSO concert. Moreover, a long string of downtown residential building projects are in various stages of planning or construction to meet the rising demand among young professionals.

Many of these are being led by businessman developer Dan Gilbert, who is the founder of Quicken Loans, which employs some ten thousand workers at its downtown Detroit headquarters (it moved there from the suburbs in 2007). Quicken’s arrival has fanned other investments in downtown real estate, including the renovation of several abandoned buildings. And after some political hurdles, plans are now moving ahead for a new twenty-thousand-seat arena for the Detroit Red Wings just north of downtown.

One step in this direction came in February with a Tchaikovsky Festival, an eighteen-concert series that music director Leonard Slatkin designed in part to boost box office sales during a typically lean month. Orchestra officials say that thirteen percent more tickets were sold as a result of the festival, and the programs attracted twenty-four percent more new single-ticket buyers than typical classical concerts. And while Detroit Free Press music critic Mark Stryker questioned the festival’s artistic necessity, he conceded that it gave the orchestra a focused challenge as it continues to rebuild its post-strike ranks (many principal positions are newly-occupied by younger players).

In February 2016, the DSO will stage a Brahms Festival, but first, Parsons says, her staff is studying this year’s festival audience in an effort to draw them back.

Beyond the activity in Midtown and downtown, Detroit’s residential neighborhoods present a more onerous challenge, as vacant, rundown houses are widespread, city services are unreliable (though improving), and thousands of properties face foreclosure. Parts of the city have become famous chiefly for their “ruin porn.” Boosters point out that half of the 62,000 properties in the city facing foreclosure this year are expected to be auctioned for $500 apiece this fall — a potentially appealing option for artists priced out of richer cities.

Philanthropic money is increasingly being funneled to community-based projects serving these neglected neighborhoods. Two years ago, the Knight Foundation launched the Knight Arts Challenge, a program that last year awarded two and a half million in prize money to fifty-eight different arts projects. Among the recipients was V. Mitch McEwen, an architect who used ten thousand dollars in a challenge grant to buy a derelict house for twelve hundred dollars, which she plans to turn into a neighborhood opera house, and possibly an artist residency studio.

Another recipient of Knight funding is Rick Robinson, a double bassist who played in the Detroit Symphony for twenty-two years, until he left during the strike. This year he received a $30,000 matching Knight grant towards his organization Classical Revolution Detroit, which presents chamber music in bars and other non-traditional spaces. The award has enabled Robinson to expand his series to three events per month, and he brings string quartets and wind quintets to pubs in neighborhoods like Corktown, an up-and-coming nightlife district. His audiences, he says, include the “younger, hipper, louder and more social.”

While the Knight Foundation has also helped to stabilize established institutions like the Michigan Opera Theater — funding programs aimed at young professionals — it isn’t the only lifeline for Detroit’s cultural community. Most notably, the Troy-based Kresge Foundation has granted more than eighteen million dollars to local arts institutions and individuals since 2007. It remains to be seen whether the city can ever attract the kinds of mega-donors who give to cultural groups in cities like New York and Los Angeles.

There also remains the question of whether the influx of arts groups can serve neighborhood residents who have ridden out the city’s bad years. One of the DSO’s longstanding enterprises is its annual Classical Roots program, whose 2015 edition featured pieces by black composers including George Walker and William Grant Still; rousing gospel numbers by the Brazeal Dennard Chorale; and a spoken-word performance set to Duke Ellington by the narrator Charlotte Blake Alston. A racially diverse, if modestly-sized audience turned out for the eclectic, Friday morning concert in early March.

Like many American orchestras, the DSO seeks to be many things to many people, and one gets the sense that its programming mix remains a work in progress. Its finances have shown many signs of strength — with individual giving, ticket income subscription sales and endowment income all up last year — though some fragility lingers. The Free Press reports that the orchestra is still balancing the budget by raising millions of dollars annually in so-called bridge funding — forms of emergency payments given by major donors to cover income gaps. Leaders say that strategy is unsustainable.

Nevertheless, as Detroit becomes identified with a burgeoning arts scene, the DSO may feed off of that overall buzz. Johanna Yarbrough is a horn player who joined the DSO in 2012, at age twenty-three, and chose to live not in a suburb, but in Midtown. “People are not afraid to come downtown any more,” she said. “They’re not afraid to live here. So the DSO is becoming something else to do.”

The Highs and Lows of 2014 in Classical Music

A scene from John Adams's opera The Death of Klinghoffer (credit: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)
A scene from John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer (credit: Richard Hubert Smith, English National Opera)


In this edition of WQXR’s Conducting Business podcast, three top music critics looked back at the year 2014 in classical music. Joining host Naomi Lewin were Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post; David Patrick Stearns, classical music critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and for WQXR’s Operavore blog; and Zachary Woolfe, now classical music editor of the New York Times.

Among the topics discussed were the Metropolitan Opera’s labor troubles and its contentious premiere of John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer; inventive programming at the orchestras of Philadelphia and Seattle; and the continued emergence of China on the orchestra landscape.

 

When Gender Stereotypes are Applied to Instruments

Girls often take up what they perceive as “feminine” instruments while boys tend to gravitate towards trumpets, tubas and percussion. Is this a bad thing?

Carol Jantsch, tuba player, and Sivan Magen, harpist (Courtesy of artists)
Carol Jantsch, tuba player, and Sivan Magen, harpist (Courtesy of artists)

May 1, 2015

It’s no secret that girls at a young age take up what they perceive as “feminine” instruments, such as the flute, piccolo, violin, and clarinet while boys tend to gravitate towards trumpets, tubas and percussion.

In this edition of WQXR’s Conducting Business podcast, three guests discuss the origins of this phenomenon and how, when old stereotypes are challenged, it can sometimes lead to “cyber-bullying” and other forms of harassment among children.

Hal Abeles, the co-director of the Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says that “adolescents, males in particular, get intimidated by not being with the majority. So if the majority of students in your middle school who are playing flute are girls, young boys feel ‘I want to belong.'”

But instrument-based stereotypes can vary from culture to culture. Sivan Magen, a New York-based harpist, said he experienced few stereotypes while growing up in Israel or at the Paris Conservatory, where four of his eight classmates were male.

Carol Jantsch, the principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, says she never got grief from her classmates as a kid in Ohio. “If you’re good at your instrument, your peers don’t care what you play,” she said. But conductors are another story, sometimes using the phrase “gentlemen of the brass” when addressing her section.

Finally, Ricky O’Bannon, a writer in residence at the Baltimore Symphony, believes teachers can do their part by simply downplaying the issue. “The moment you start saying ‘this instrument is not just for girls or not just for boys'” is the kiss of death, he noted. “It’s about having a child find the instrument that they’re going to enjoy and not having any extra pressures on that.”

Pablo Heras-Casado: Polymath on the Podium

Among the conductors who has appeared on critics’ wish lists to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic is Pablo Heras-Casado, music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and assistant conductor of Madrid’s Teatro Real.

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts a rehearsal of the Orchestra of St. Luke's (Brian Wise/WQXR)
Pablo Heras-Casado conducts a rehearsal of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (Brian Wise/WQXR)

August 14, 2015

Among the conductors who has appeared on critics’ wish lists to succeed Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic is Pablo Heras-Casado, music director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and assistant conductor of Madrid’s Teatro Real.

In August 2015, Heras-Casado spoke about his conducting activities in New York, his eclectic repertoire interests (from medieval to modern), and the need to present a less stuffy image of classical music. In this clip, he addresses the idea of seating areas where people can Tweet during the concert.

Read the full article at WQXR.org.